April 25, 2016 posted by

A Chat with Martha Sigall

Martha Sigall-signature600

This week we go back to March 8th, 1986, for the Third Annual Golden Awards Banquet, hosted by the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists, IATSE Local 839. This set of interviews, done at the union’s headquarters in North Hollywood, was done by Dan McLaughlin, then head of the UCLA Animation Workshop, who unfortunately passed away last month; with its emphasis on training independent animators, the Workshop was never as visible as say CalArts, but produced its share of first-rate artists, including David Silverman (The Simpsons).

I first got to know Dan after I became involved with ASIFA-Hollywood in the early 1980s, when the Workshop was putting on some of L.A.’s most important animation events, often in conjunction with the UCLA Film & TV Archive. Dan was thus a fine choice to conduct this set of talks, starting with Martha Goldman Sigall, one of the true legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood Animation.

Martha Sigall get caught reading

Sigall was born in Rochester, NY and eventually ended up moving to Hollywood. In 1932, just before going to junior high school, she discovered one of her neighbors was Pacific Title and Art Studio, a company owned by Leon Schlesinger. There she became an unofficial gofer, getting “ice cream, candy and miscellaneous goodies for” the staff. Sigall also started helping a woman named Thelma who did airbrushing on film titles and painted animation cels for Schlesinger’s Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons. This eventually led to her getting a job as a painter for Schlesinger on July 13, 1936, starting at $12.50 for a 42½-hour work week. Thus, began her career, which she chronicled in her acclaimed 2005 memoir, Living Life Inside the Lines: Tales from the Golden Age of Animation.

Martha (at right) with sticking Warner Bros. animators.

Martha (at right) with locked out striking Warner Bros. animators.

In her chat with McLaughlin, she remembered working on the first Bugs Bunny cartoon. “He was an ugly rabbit, a repulsive rabbit, but he turned into a cute little guy. His character made a fortune for Leon Schlesinger and for Warner Bros., because, up till then, they just had Porky Pig, which was sort of a nondescript character that nobody really [liked]. But as soon as Bugs Bunny came on the scene, that just seemed to grab everybody.” She added that it was not until Tex Avery directed A Wild Hare that Bugs really gelled. “As soon as we saw that picture,” she recalled, “we knew that he was going to be a terrific character for the studio.”

“We had so much fun in those days that,” Sigall noted, “you didn’t care that you weren’t making a lot of money. But we soon realized that, hey, we should; we’ll have to do something about this, and so we formed a union,” the Screen Cartoonists Guild. After working at Schlesinger’s for a year, she was making $21.00 a week, but was told that was the most she could expect. In 1941, she was one of those Schlesinger locked out out of the studio just as the Guild was threatening to strike. He gave in without much of a fight, in contrast to the bitter Disney strike that followed, in which she and other Schlesinger artists helped out in.

During World War 2, she worked at Les Novros’ Graphic Films, which was “a wonderful experience” for Sigall, as she “learned to do camera work.” Women were involved with camera work before, including Bill Littlejohn’s aunt at Van Beuren, but by the 1940s, it had become solely man’s work; but with so many men off to war, the cameraman’s union gave her a permit to do the job only for the duration of the war. She then went back to ink and paint work, initially at UPA and then MGM. After a year inking for MGM, she was asked to once again be a camera assistant. She left the studio in 1949 to raise a family, but then began picking up freelance work to do at home. Over the years, she worked for Celine Miles Ink and Paint, Bob Clampett’s Snowball, Lisberger Productions, Kurtz and Friends, C&D Ink and Paint, DePatie-Freleng, Film Fair, Bill Melendez and Hanna-Barbera. Sigall finally retired in 1989.

marthabook1She was a staunch fan of classic Hollywood animation and, as such, in 1992, reached out to Jerry Beck in an attempt to fill in the gaps in her video collection of Warner Bros. cartoons. The resulting friendship eventually led to her writing Living Life Inside the Lines. Looking back now, it seems rather strange that in response to McLaughlin’s request for more stories, she would say, “Nothing comes to mind right now.” Before she passed away in 2014, at the age of 97, Sigall was called on to do DVD commentaries, be a talking face on various documentaries, and was an honored guest at the San Diego Comic Con; she even appeared as an expert on an episode of PBS’s History Detectives.

In addition to her memoirs, you should of course check out Jerry Beck’s obituary he posted the day she died, as well the one by Michael Mallory. In addition, there is the tribute posted by the Culver City Historical Society, who also did a series of video interviews with her which are posted here.

Next week: Curt Perkins and Lee Halpern.


  • I never knew just what jobs Martha Sigall was given but this interview tells me exactly what she had done, and I wonder why she was considered “the terror of Termite Terrace”. I wonder how the atmosphere at MGM differed from Warner Brothers, because talking about the film industry in general and the cartoon industry are usually two different things; they shouldn’t be, but, alas…Oh, I don’t think Bugs was “an ugly little rabbit” in his first incarnation, just devoid of characteristics that people would immediately take to. He had too many similarities to Woody Woodpecker, and maybe that is because “Bugs” Hardaway had a hand in forming both characters. Bugs strategized while Daffy remained Warners’ “looney” character. I’ll have to go back (on VOL. 6, DISK 2) in the GOLDEN COLLECTION series to hear the full commentary on the “gag reel” to see if Martha, herself, ever appeared in the reel, but this was a fantastic interview.

  • What a wonnnnnderful post, and a great memory! Was elated to meet her, AND (of course) “get the book!”

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